A little dinghy

What's that white thing on the dock? A shoebox, a bookshelf, or a boat?

On the big day, when we launched Flutterby, I didn’t pour all the champagne over the bow. There was some left in the bottle, so a bunch of us went down the dock to where a little wooden shoebox, about six feet long, sat waiting. Kris and Barry picked it up and dangled it down to the water by its painter, letting it down with a  splash. Way, way down there in the water below the high dock, it looked for all the world like an abandoned piece of furniture. Somebody tossed a couple of wooden oars into the shoebox-bookshelf, and then they all turned to me, expectantly.


There it floated, nine years in the making, waiting for the builder to test it. I felt like the ancient Roman bridge designer who had to stand under his bridge when the first load went across. What if I was too heavy? What if it flipped, or worse yet, slowly sank? I could hear the blub-blub-blub in my imagination. But it’s amazing what adrenaline and an audience can do. White-knuckled, I climbed down the ladder into the tiny vessel that I had given birth to from a pile of plywood.

I was still hanging onto the ladder with a death grip when Barry handed me the bottle of champagne.

It felt like a toy boat, something that should be christened with Kool-Aid. But I wanted the gods of the sea to take this thing seriously, so I poured champagne over the “bow.” (Since the boat doesn’t have a pointy end, it’s a little hard to tell which is the front and which is the back. It would probably row just fine sideways, if I mounted the oars that way.)

“I christen thee Flutterwent!” The name was Kris’ idea. It rolls off the tongue better than Flagondry or Rockcoach, two bug-based Spoonerisms that sound a lot worse than Flutterby.

Before I knew it, Barry was climbing off the dock to join me in the boat, I think because I had the bottle of champagne. Or maybe because he wanted to swamp it and go swimming. Surely this thing was not rated for two adults, was it? Thank goodness the Coast Guard wasn’t around to see the open container in an overloaded vessel with no lifejackets.

But she didn’t ship any water when he climbed in. We sat there, facing each other, grinning, and passing the champagne bottle back and forth. Meanwhile, the current was carrying us away from the dock. Whoops! Time to do something about that!

Using ridiculous 7-foot oars as giant paddles, we paddled through the marina and over to the ways, where Flutterby awaited us. The scariest part was getting back out again! I didn’t know how stable it was, but I knew how stable I was — not very. I guess the adrenaline got me out of the boat as well as into it, although by now most of our audience had lost interest and wandered off for happy hour. I was already plenty happy.

You might be wondering, why would anyone use such a strange-looking, tiny dinghy? Normal cruisers go back and forth from their boats in stock gray inflatables with stock outboard motors. Why not the Flutterbies?

For years, Barry wanted to build a 34-foot sailboat with me. This terrified me, because I was afraid of power tools. I’d had an accident in college with a bandsaw and nearly ended up eight-fingered Meps.

In 2001, our housemate, Sharonne, signed up for a beginning woodworking class. For the first four weeks, the students built toolboxes using a table saw, joiner, planer, biscuit-cutter, and sander. For the remainder of the class, they worked on their own projects. At the end of ten weeks, Sharonne proudly brought home the toolbox and a tall bookshelf that she had built with her own hands.

I signed up for the next session and built the same toolbox. Then the teacher sat down with the class and told us we were free to start on our own projects. He went around the room and asked each person to say what they wanted to build. “A CD rack,” said one. “Toys for my grandchildren,” said another.

I never checked to see if the toolbox would float. It would make a great dinghy for the dinghy.

When he reached me, I said, “A boat.”

“A toy boat?” asked the teacher.

“No, a real one.”

The rest of the class stared at me.

“This is Woodworking One. You can’t build a boat on Woodworking One,” said the teacher, with a smirk.

“Don’t you remember Sharonne, from last term? She built a bookshelf. I promise my boat will be just like a bookshelf.” He rolled his eyes and made me stay after class to convince me that I couldn’t build a boat.

The following week, I showed him the plans. Phil Bolger’s Tortoise dinghy looks a lot like a floating bookshelf, so he reluctantly permitted me to start. A couple of months later, Barry and I loaded my plywood dinghy on top of Peepcar and brought it home. I’d done the final assembly in Woodworking Two, with a more encouraging instructor.

The good news was, I still had all my fingers. (So did the instructor from Woodworking One, who’d nearly run his hand through the table saw helping me cut the framing.) The bad news was, it wasn’t a boat yet.

It was a thing of beauty, constructed of luan plywood with pine framing and copper ring nails. For the first year, it sat on our back porch. For the next five, it hung in my in-laws’ garage.

I was proud of my accomplishment, so I told people that I’d built a boat. But whenever Barry heard me say that, he’d correct me. “No, you didn’t. It’s not finished.”

In 2008, I painted it with epoxy resin to protect the wood, and we tied it on top of the Squid Wagon. We drove from Seattle to Flutterby in Beaufort, North Carolina, via San Diego, with that tiny, funny-looking boat on top of the van.

The ant and the elephant along the California coast (April 2008)

It looked like an ant on top of an elephant. All the way across the USA, we got reactions like the guy with the toothpick in his mouth who sauntered over to Barry, not noticing me nearby. “What is that?” he asked. “Some kind of storage pod?” “No,” said Barry, “It’s a boat.” The guy looked more closely and said, “Oh.”

Then Barry added, “My wife built it.” The guy cracked up laughing. He thought it was the punchline to a really funny joke.

The epoxy wasn’t UV-resistant, and by the time we crossed the country, it already needed sanding and painting. We didn’t have anywhere to store it out of the weather, so we rented a 5×7 storage unit and stuffed it inside, using it to store other items — just like a bookshelf!

For another two and a half years, when I said, “I built a boat,” Barry said, “No, you haven’t.” I’d glare at him. Couldn’t he just shut up?

That was getting really irritating, so last summer, I took the poor neglected dinghy out and put it under Flutterby. It was time to finish it, a job only I could do. If I let Barry help me, then, when I said “I built a boat,” he’d still have an excuse to correct me. “No, you didn’t. We built a boat.”

My sawhorses sat on some turf with boatbuilding history. Between 1983 and 1995, Bock Marine built and launched over 30 boats in that spot, including the 122-foot White Dove Too. Like the WDT, my dinghy was brought from another location and completed on that hallowed ground. But there are some differences. Their ships were steel, launched using a dramatic side-launching technique (this is a hilarious photo of people running from the splash) instead of our painter-dangling end-launching technique. I calculated the ratio of length-to-time-under-construction: At 6.5 feet and 9 years, Flutterwent’s ratio was 505. Knocking out a couple of 85-footers a year, Bock’s was 2.1.

I finished the dinghy in the heat of the summer, using all the woodworking, epoxy, fiberglass, and painting skills I learned on Flutterby. While I was working, I wore headphones and hearing protection. Not because of the power tools, but because I was tired of all the men in the boatyard wandering over to stare. I was tired of explaining that I was not building a hard dodger to cover the companionway.

When I was done, I said to Barry, “I built a boat.” Then he hugged me instead of correcting me.

It still wasn’t completely done, having no means of propulsion. But it’s past midnight, and I am done for tonight! Tiny boat, big story. I’ll put the photo essay below and save the rest for another time.

Barry and Kris drop the dinghy into the water, stern-first. "Yikes! Who's got the painter?"

With nerves of steel, I step into the floating box. Ted, who has launched many dinghies, was there to help, and Barry had the painter and the champagne.

You can tell from my hand that I am afraid to move, for fear it will sink or tip over.

Margaret Meps Schulte christens her Tortoise dinghy

I haven't sunk yet. And I have the champagne. So I'm smiling.

Oh no! Here comes Barry to see if he can swamp my dinghy.

As the current carries us away from safety, I say, "You want some of this?"

Giggling, we pick up the oars and paddle into the sunset. She tracks like a shoebox instead of a soapdish.

Getting out is trickier than getting in. Barry made sure the champagne bottle was safe, but I think it was empty by now.

Barry and Meps with Meps' Tortoise dinghy

Whee! Barry has fun scooting under Flutterby's bow line. At 6-1/2 feet long, the Tortoise dinghy is just long enough for a nice nap.

Welcome To My World

Every once in a while, I have to turn my head to the side and shake all the excess brain fluff out of my ear. I also have to clean out all the small info-snippets that have gathered in our traveling notebook. So the following post is sort of like the soup you make after cleaning out the refrigerator.

I recently found the receipt for some postcards I bought at Graceland. At the time, I hadn’t noticed the name of the store at the top of the receipt: “Welcome To My World.” Considering that Elvis Presley is dead, I’m wondering, what does that signify?

At a Wal-Mart near Bentonville, Arkansas, we had a strange experience. As we walked in, instead of a regular greeter, an older woman walked up to us and said, “Happy Earth Day! Would you like a clothespin?” We accepted this strange gift, on which she’d handwritten, “Save energy! Hang clothes out to dry!”

A day later, checking into a campground, we were handed an 8-1/2×11 sheet of paper, single-spaced, with campground rules. Rule number 13 was, “…use the washers and dryers provided in the laundry room. Clotheslines are very dangerous and things hung outside to dry can blow away in the wind, or be unsightly to other campers.” (the emphasis is theirs) Laughing, Barry clipped the rules sheet to our notebook with the clothespin, leaving me to ruminate on the paradox.

Favorite street names: Side Street, Friendly Street, Liberal Avenue. The first two were in Eugene. The third one could have been, but wasn’t.

Favorite billboards: Two checkboxes, reading “Stick head in sand” and “Fight global warming.”

And: Lose 3000 pounds in one day! Donate your car to…

And: Be an Oklahoma State Trooper — company car provided!

Most common question from strangers on our trip across the country: “Is that a boat?”

Answer most likely to be met with a chuckle: “Yep, my wife built it.”

I put a magnetic peace sign on the back of our van, my quiet statement about the Iraq war. However, I was confused, and I put it on upside-down, with the three prongs up. My sister, who also has one, laughed at me, but I still wasn’t absolutely certain that she was right. After I’d seen at least six peace signs along I-5, all of them with the prongs down, I flipped it over, embarrassed. How could I have lived through the 70’s and not noticed?

Funniest missing comma: “This road adopted by Wal-mart Marina.”

Funniest Texas sign: “Don’t mess with Texas. Up to $2000 fine for littering.”

Strangest highway equipment: On Highway 1, along the California coast, rockslides are so common that they use something like a snowplow to clear the roads. We dubbed them “rockplows.”

Favorite exit signs: “Santa Claus Lane, next exit.”

Also, “Mexico, next exit.” Don’t you wonder what the one on the other side says?

Best question on a billboard: “Have you ever met an honest mortician?”

Three great business names: HAYKINGDOM, Insane Autos, Aggressive Towing

If cows could read, and if they appreciated fine wrought-iron work, maybe the lovely archway that says “Cattle Town” over the entrance to the feedlot would make them think they’re going to a nice place. I doubt it, though.

Weirdest church name: Bovina United Methodist Church (I bet the sermons are very mooooving!)

Two beautiful California things I saw firsthand: Fields of purple artichokes and whales spouting in the Pacific Ocean.

Not an April fools’ joke: On April 1, 2008, we stopped at 1 Infinite Loop Drive, also known as Apple Headquarters. This was not to pay homage to the maker of our new computer, but to have lunch with Todd, who we’d not seen in 17 years. He looks exactly like he did when he graduated from college, one advantage to losing one’s hair young.

Dumb question, smart answer: Driving through Arizona date country, Meps asked, “If dates come from palm trees, and coconuts come from palm trees, are dates related to coconuts?” Barry answered, “As much as peaches are related to oranges, I guess.”

Friona, Official Cheeseburger Capital of Texas.

Twenty miles later: Welcome to Hereford, Beef Capitol of the World. Sorry, the folks in Friona say it only counts if it’s official.

Most propitious lunch stop: We received an email in February from our friend, Drew, that read “Rudy’s BBQ is a must stop. All other BBQ including Mary’s (his wife, rumored to make the best homemade BBQ in Seattle) is judged by this Texas Standard.” Two months later, we happened to be passing Rudy’s, outside El Paso, precisely at lunchtime when our stomachs were growling.

In Oregon, where all gas is pumped by attendants, we started chatting with the man pumping our diesel. He asked where we were headed, and when we told him “North Carolina, via San Diego” he told us about a trip he once took. They drove from Grant’s Pass to Charleston, South Carolina and back, over 6000 miles, in 5 days. He seemed proud to have “seen” the entire USA.

Since we purchased the Squid Wagon in Florida and took it to Seattle by way of Newfoundland, our trusty Ford van has not crossed the USA, it has actually circumnavigated it. Compared to the fellow from Grant’s Pass, though, we’re slow. We’ve only traveled twice the distance, or 12,000 miles. But it took us four and a half months for the northern leg, and a speedy five weeks for the southern.

Pilgrims in the funhouse

I’ve never thought of myself as an Elvis Presley fan, despite the fact that I love his silly songs, especially Jailhouse Rock and Teddy Bear. So why did I find myself drawn to Graceland, like a moth to a flame? Was it actually the subconscious lure of the Paul Simon song, not Elvis at all? “I’m goin’ to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis Tennessee, I’m goin’ to Graceland…”

The truth is, I was drawn to Graceland because it’s the quintessential icon of American tourism. I wanted to revel in a real tourist Mecca, a gaudy shrine for pilgrims in Bermuda shorts. I prepared myself for something tacky and űber-commercial, where tourists would gladly part with their money. Although I, too, am an American tourist, I planned to have a stronger grip on my wallet than the rest of the poor fools.

We arrived in the evening and camped at an RV park on Teddy Bear Lane, behind the Heartbreak Hotel. In the morning, we broke camp and queued up for tickets by 9. The first tour available to us, since we had no reservations, was two hours later, and Barry was seriously bummed.

Not me, however. I’d spied the row of gift shops, and I knew there were hours of entertainment to be found on their shelves.

A casual circuit of the first shop took me past pink vinyl rhinestone-encrusted purses, Elvis refrigerator magnets, etched wineglasses, and flip-flops (heavily discounted, evidently more flop than flip). I was headed for the postcards, and what I found was a delight. In addition to pictures of the interior and exterior of the house, there was a whole series of postcards with Elvis’ favorite recipes. Each card had a recipe for fried peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches, meatloaf, or barbecue sauce, alongside a photo of the slim, attractive young Elvis. The later fat Elvis would have been more honest, but less likely to be hung upon anyone’s refrigerator.

In a second shop, we saw more rhinestones, on copies of Elvis’ elaborate costumes. They run thousands of dollars, but I’m sure there are plenty of impersonators who buy them as a business expense. There were also musical teddy bears, clocks with pendulums of Elvis’ swinging hips, beach towels with life-sized pictures, and framed photographs. I looked everywhere, but I didn’t see any portraits painted on black velvet.

When we finally emerged into daylight, I’d been fairly restrained: Only seven postcards and a bumper sticker emerged with me.

In front of the shops, we joined the throng of ticket holders. Uniformed employees distributed audio devices and then ushered us onto buses for the very short ride across the street and up the driveway.

We disembarked in front of the front door, fumbling with our headsets. The house was nothing special, just a simple Southern brick structure with tidy landscaping and a couple of stone lions on either side of the door. As we entered, in a group of about 20, I took a deep breath, expecting to be thrown into some sort of fun house experience. I was surprised by the formal elegance of the front rooms.

Then came the kitchen, where the decor was frozen in the 1970’s. The crazy kitchen carpet and outdated fixtures reminded me of my parents’ kitchen during that era. The audio guide featured a clip of Lisa-Marie Presley, reminiscing about how the kitchen always had someone in it, 24 hours a day. I poked Barry and whispered, “Somebody had to be frying Elvis’ peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches!”

Just around the corner, the funhouse aspect began. The stairs to the basement were completely mirrored, so that you could enjoy infinite reflections of yourself. At the bottom, we found what today would be called the “media room.” More mirrors on the ceiling, a wet bar, a hi-fi and a few records, and three TVs, small by today’s standards. Elvis was ahead of his time in one thing — he wanted to watch “all three networks” at the same time. Poor guy, he didn’t live long enough for cable TV and wireless remote controls.

The busy patterns of the pool table room assaulted my eyes, and it was a relief to move up the stairs to the jungle room, with green shag carpet on the ceiling. And then we were through the house, and the audio guide was telling us about the backyard. Not even a peek at Elvis’ bedroom.

It wasn’t over. There was still the office, then all the exhibits. We followed Elvis’ career from beginning to end, including promotional posters, many gold records, a few Grammies (all in the Gospel category), movie memorabilia, and a section about his musical comeback in the 70’s. I found one display interesting — 40 checks, each for $1000, written on the same day to 40 different charitable causes.

Finally, emerging from the dim racquetball court-turned-museum, we were shepherded to Elvis’ grave. The mood was somber, but that didn’t prevent all the tourists, including us, from taking pictures of the sacred tombstone. We did, however, refrain from phooning.

When Elvis died, his father didn’t intend to enshrine his son on the property. He had him buried in a regular cemetary, near his mother. But a few months later, they both were reinterred. I’m guessing that grief-crazed fans were making a nuisance of themselves at the cemetary; at the house, the graves could be properly watched over.

Two days later, we’d put Graceland behind us, or so we thought. We drove to Asheville, North Carolina, where our gracious, lively, and fun friend Julie lives. She works for the Biltmore, the largest private residence in the United States.

Barry and I were especially grateful for complimentary tickets to the Biltmore. It’s twice as expensive as Graceland. It’s also about a hundred times bigger, and the furnishings are about a hundred years older. Despite the ludicrous differences, though, we couldn’t stop making comparisons between the two estates.

Elvis bought Graceland when he was 22 and single. George Vanderbilt began the Biltmore when he was in his 20s, too, and single. Both have a pair of stone lions on either side of the front door. Both have a hotel and many gift shops, and both employ a lot of people. Both have a pool table — the Biltmore has two — and both have a swimming pool. Both are full of tourists, gawking at the lives of the rich and famous.

Both are owned by descendants, too. In the Biltmore, there is a large painting of the family members who currently own it, three or four generations of conventional-looking folks with their poodle. There is no such painting of Lisa-Marie’s family at Graceland, and the thought of her husband looking conventional makes me want to giggle.

Strolling the gardens and woods at the Biltmore, we found everything in bloom. The rolling hills were covered in a freshly-leafed shade of spring green, and the property was so vast that we walked for a couple of hours. We passed the camera back and forth, trying to capture the feel of the world-class landscape architecture, with features on a scale with Central Park. Then we turned our attention to the giant house.

I especially liked the vast dining hall and the library, which felt European and Medieval. We shuffled through elegant bedroom after bedroom, admiring paintings by famous artists. Then we made our way past the servant’s quarters, commercial-sized kitchens and laundry rooms, swimming pool and bowling alley.

But something felt off-kilter. Inside the house, away from the grounds, I was disturbed by the commercialism. There seemed to be a sugarcoated “buy, buy, buy” message, as if simply purchasing a ticket wasn’t enough to support this private historical edifice. Maybe I was feeling guilty because we hadn’t purchased our tickets. I did my obligatory gift shop circuit — home furnishings, sweatshirts, dip mixes, wine, and chocolates — but only purchased a handful of postcards.

How could it be that at Graceland, I’d expected űber-commercial, and then been treated as a guest? At the Biltmore, I expected to feel like a guest, and instead I found űber-commercial. Was I a victim of my own expectations?

Graceland isn’t a big, grand place. There’s a tongue-in-cheek feeling, a sense of humor about this lucky guy’s house that became a tourist Mecca. It’s a fun house, not just a funhouse. The Biltmore is the legacy of another lucky guy, someone who inherited so much money he didn’t know what to do with it. But the operation is so vast, it requires a superhuman amount of effort to maintain. There’s a hint of the blue blood legacy.

Given my choice, I’d rather inherit Graceland.


I was at the wheel on the east side of Oklahoma, and Barry was studying a map of Arkansas, our next state. As usual, I was in hurry-hurry mode, and he was not. “Hot Springs looks interesting,” he said. I wondered whether they were out of the way, and more importantly, if they were bathing-suit-optional hot springs.

As luck would have it, our next stop was lunch at the Pig Out Palace, notable for their 32-oz beverage glasses, frighteningly large portions, and wi-fi. I finally satisfied my craving for chicken fried steak. Afterwards, I sat in the oversized booth feeling bloated while Barry satisfied his craving for email.

To our surprise, there was a message from Barbara, mentioning that if we stopped in Hot Springs, Arkansas, we should let her know. I tried to call her, but got her voicemail. So I called her husband, Jim.

“Barbara says there’s someone we should look up in Hot Springs — is it someone we’ve heard about?” I asked. Jim chuckled. “Her sister,” he replied, “and my brother. They’re married, you know. To each other.”

We had indeed heard good things about Della and Alex over the years we’d known Jim and Barbara, so we got in touch, and they invited us to their house on very short notice. The route Della recommended took us on ribbon-like Route 7, through the lush spring green of the Ouachita National Forest. It was just as beautiful as the California coast, and the only other vehicles were three motorcycles out to enjoy the curves.

One of my favorite travel writers, Peter Jenkins, once mentioned an acronym he had in his diary: T.A.A. It stood for “Totally Amazed by Alabama.” I had a different T.A.A.: Totally Amazed by Arkansas.

Della and Alex made us feel right at home, and we felt like family, maybe because we know so many of their family members! The four of us sat in the living room, talking, for quite a while. Our connection to them is through their siblings, but I was enjoying getting to know how they are different from those siblings.

Still, we’d arrived fairly late, and at about 10:30, Della turned to Alex. “Well, Mr. Cole, I think it’s time for us to go to bed,” she said. Alex nodded and started to get up.

Barry and I burst out laughing. “What’s so funny?” they asked.

The line, the delivery, and the response were something we’d heard dozens of times aboard Complexity. We’d be moored somewhere in Alaska or British Columbia, relaxing after dinner and talking for hours. But Jim and Barbara are super-early birds, and we are the opposite. So Barbara would turn to her husband at about 10:30, and she’d say a line we grew to know well: “Well, Mr. Cole, I think it’s time for us to go to bed.”

The following day, we slept late by Cole standards — past 7. Alex had long since gone to work, but Della had the day free to give us what she called the “nickel tour” of Hot Springs. Just up the road from their house are mines where mucky mud yields sparkling quartz crystals. We visited one of the operations and took photos of ourselves with enormous furniture-sized crystals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Then she took us into the town of Hot Springs, where more surprises awaited us. This was no mere soaking pool, but blocks of elegant brick bathhouses where people had come for centuries to “take the waters,” now turned into a national park. The building we visited was full of original — and creepy — equipment. There were steam boxes where only the person’s head would stick out, rows of cubicles with claw-footed tubs, and elaborately complicated showers. One room had all kinds of iron torture equipment, predecessors to modern physical therapy devices. The massage rooms contained scary-looking electrical widgets, not relaxing at all.

On our way back, Della drove us by the off-road vehicle park their son-in-law manages. I had never seen such a thing — there were roads so steep, it was hard to imagine any vehicle negotiating them, even a special-purpose one. I was also surprised by the fact that the property was beautifully wooded; I’d expected a place exclusively for people to play with cars to be much more barren.

Our stop in Hot Springs was too brief, but we said farewell and traveled to Little Rock that afternoon, pitching our tent in Burns Park.

Della told us to check out the Big Dam Bridge, a soaring half-mile bicycle and pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas river. It was a beautiful piece of engineering, providing an excellent vantage point for watching barges locking up and down the river. But what intrigued me more was the social engineering aspect — in a state with a reputation for poor nutrition and obesity, here was something you could only enjoy if you got out and burned calories. On this hot weekday evening, the bridge was a busy, popular place. I saw super-fit spandex-clad cyclists, parents with toddlers, people walking after work in their office clothes, novice rollerbladers, and a very sweaty woman jogging in jeans.

Distant thunder and lightning made me wonder if we should have stayed with Alex and Della; instead, we drove back to our tent. A little while later, we struck up a conversation with Robin, camping in her car across from us. She had such an amazing story — not mine to tell, I’m afraid — that we dug into the van for wine glasses and that special bottle of Tom’s Pear-a-dice wine, and the three of us settled around the picnic table and talked into the night.

About a week before we’d left Seattle, Barry and I received a couple of going-away presents with far-reaching effects. They’re simply purple rubber bracelets, inscribed with “A Complaint Free World.org.” The way they work is this: You put one on your wrist. If you complain or criticize or gossip, you have to take it off and move it to the other wrist. The goal is to change behavior, which is supposed to take 21 days. The longest we’d gone without changing ours was about four days. We called them “cheap marriage therapy.”

Fairly early in the evening, we’d mentioned the bracelets to Robin. But she’d just left a bizarre relationship, and she needed to do some serious venting — complaining, criticizing, and gossiping, along with eye-rolling, grousing, and grumping. Still, she had a great attitude. And when she pantomimed taking off a bracelet and moving it to the other wrist, we all cracked up — especially since she did it many times.

It was very late when we finally crawled into our tent for the night, and there were thunderstorms and torrential downpours that woke us several times, but I didn’t mind. After meeting Robin, I figured we’d been there in the park for a reason. Robin, if you’re out there, please write!

Our last day in Arkansas was overcast, and the river, bridges, and downtown buildings made me think I was in Portland, Oregon. We spent the morning at the Clinton Presidential Library, which was interesting but surreal. I’ve been to other presidential libraries, but those were for dead presidents. Imagine having a museum — and a gift shop — devoted to you while you were still alive. What would you say about yourself?

The “spin” on Bill Clinton’s years in the White House left my head “spinning.” The strangest thing was reliving those years right now, when Hillary is fighting so hard for the Democratic nomination. I was looking hard for clues to Hillary, but the exhibits hardly mention her at all. There are ball gowns and a few biographical items, and a video she narrated about redecorating the White House.

I dragged Barry into the gift shop and then browsed the entire store, curious. There were politically-correct handicrafts, ecologically-sensitive kitsch, and left-wing books, along with cult-of-Bill refrigerator magnets and buttons. Next to the door was a life-sized image of Bill Clinton, sans Hillary. As usual, I picked up a couple of postcards, but Barry quickly scanned the merchandise and found a key item lacking. “That’s funny,” he said. “I don’t see any cigars.”

And with that, we left Totally Amazing Arkansas and headed for Tennessee…and Graceland.

If you don't have the do-re-mi

Author’s note: We’re currently in Beaufort, NC, but there are several stories of our adventures in places west of here that haven’t been published yet. At the risk of confusing y’all, I’m just sticking them out there as I get ’em done. –Meps

When we crossed from Texas into Oklahoma, it was as though Mother Nature made the border herself. The dusty ranch landscape suddenly became green farmland. There were classic white farmhouses, each framed by trees planted by some settler’s wife. No longer West, but Midwest.

At Red Rock Canyon State Park, we arrived just after dark to find the ranger getting ready to go home. His weathered features and earnest slow speech made me think of a movie caricature of an Okie. I wondered how many generations of his family had lived in Oklahoma.

Often, my eyes trick me when I arrive in a new place after dark. All I could see were farm fields, so I asked the ranger, “How big is the park?”

He scratched his head and gave me a slow, earnest answer. “Well, it’s not that big. You’ll drive down this road here, and don’t worry about the folks at the bottom of the hill; I told ’em to leave. There are tent sites on both sides of the road, and there’s a good one across from the bathhouse — number 24 or 25, I think? No, maybe it’s 34…”

He went on in elaborate detail about which sites were best for a tent. It sounded like the whole park was just campsites, and it also sounded like we’d be there all night listening to descriptions of them. Finally, I had to ask, “What is there to do in the park?”

“Well, er, there are a lot of campsites. It’s mostly for relaxing, I guess.”

I was intrigued by this Oklahoma concept of a state park just for relaxing, and that’s exactly what we did there. We pitched our tent and spent two nights and one whole slow-paced day. We read books, did some writing, took long showers, and sorted pictures in a rustic picnic shelter. I could imagine the shelter on a hot summer weekend, reserved for a family reunion or church picnic. There would be a sign written on a paper plate, and multiple generations would be sharing hamburgers and potato salad and cake. Relaxing.

In the evening of the second day, another ranger came by to collect our money. He wore the same uniform, but he didn’t look like his great-great-grandparents came from Oklahoma. As he told me, they didn’t.

Back in the 1970’s, Dave was one of thousands of people applying for park jobs in California, where he’d grown up. He heard that in Oklahoma, they had more park jobs than they could fill. “The only qualification for the job back then was an 8th grade education,” he laughed.

So he moved to Oklahoma, going the opposite way of the masses. He’s raised his family in Oklahoma, and his idea of a vacation is visiting family in Arkansas or Illinois, or putting on a fireworks show for friends. I could imagine him attending a family reunion or church picnic.

Dave never actually said that he was the head ranger for the park, but we got that impression from his comments on the operation of the park. His job has a whole range of challenges — from drafting the park’s budget to hiring a company to pick up the garbage to overseeing teenagers working at the swimming pool. But as the buck-stops-here guy, he also has to occasionally remove a wasp nest from a restroom or drive around to collect camping fees from people like us.

These days, I bet it takes more than an 8th grade education to get hired as an Oklahoma park ranger. It sounds like a fun job, except for those wasp nests. But could Barry and I live in Oklahoma?

Well, yes, it turns out. There is navigable water on the east side of the state. All we’d have to do is sail up the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers, and then we’d probably be the first liveaboard sailboaters in Oklahoma. Flutterby’s shallow draft would come in handy, and best of all, it would be a lot cheaper than moorage on the Atlantic or Pacific.

Just kidding! …wanted to see if anyone was actually reading this (grin).

Thank you… thankyouverymuch

We have a little crew of strange passengers in the Squid Wagon. Those of you who have seen the van, packed almost to the ceiling with our personal belongings (and a few impersonal ones), are probably wondering where they find seats.

There’s Van Moose, a strange little metal Christmas creature who hangs from the rear view mirror. His name is a takeoff on “vamoose,” which means “let’s go.” I figure, if Van Moose says “let’s go,” then Squidley will do so. We have had no car trouble since we hung Van Moose on the rear view mirror in Altadena, California.

There’s Frankie the Bear, who rides between the front seats and guards the van when we’re not aboard. How could you possibly break into a vehicle that is guarded by a chubby little white bear with the face of a smiling Buddha?

Frankie has been riding shotgun with us for over 15 years, and his favorite thing is to blow the horn. He blew the horn on our last car so much, he wore it out. With this in mind, we knew we were taking a risk to let him blow the horn in the Squid Wagon. But when we crossed the border into our final state, North Carolina, we had to let him blow the horn for about a minute. Luckily, there were no other cars on the road, or Frankie might have gotten us into trouble.

There’s another bear, Scuppers, who rides wherever he damn well pleases. He’s the mischievous one, and when things go wrong, he’s usually the suspect. It took us a long time to get the van started in Asheville, and we think it was because Scuppers had met all the bears in Julie’s guest room and wanted to stay with them.

Scuppers wears a little blue sweater with a sailboat on it, but when it gets hot, he sunbathes nude on the dashboard. I’m surprised that the cops in the Bible Belt haven’t pulled us over for that.

And then there’s Michael: St. Michael the Archangel, whose picture is mounted on the dashboard, stomping on a demon. I was a little afraid of demons when we left, you know, car trouble demons, accident demons, flat tire demons, theft demons. But Michael kept them all at bay, through a trip that carried us over 5000 miles from Seattle to San Diego to Beaufort, North Carolina.

At noon today, we drove over the last bridge and into the boatyard. I parked the very blue Squid Wagon next to our very red boat, and I turned off the engine. The silence was deafening.

And now what? Which project do we start? Wait, I still have to write about Graceland!

It’s going to be a weird transition, but we have our critter friends to help. We sailors are a superstitious lot, so they’ll go from keeping us safe on the road to keeping us safe on the boat.

Thanks to everyone who helped us make it from there to here without getting lonely — Sharon and Dave, and Jim and Barbara and Abby, and Mike and Nita, and Michael, and Tom and Gudrun, and Julie and Ed, and Daisy, and Ellen and Gary, and Barbara and Joe, and Jeannie and Cliff and Jerry, and Todd, and Michael and Doeri and Eliza, and Brenda and John, and Aunt Jo, and Bonnie and Chuck, and Harley and Annabelle, and Della and Alex, and Robin-in-Little-Rock, and Julie E., and James, and Pat and Belinda, and Stevie. (deep breath) And thank you to everyone who has phoned and emailed and left comments on the blog, because without you, we’d just be a couple of boring American tourists.

The accidental tourist attraction and redneck capital of the universe

We took our first really, really long vacation in 1993, when we were in our late 20’s. We’d planned to drive across the US, camping and seeing the sights, for a few months. It turned into two years.

A couple of months into this odyssey, we stopped at a campground in Villa Nueva, New Mexico. We were hot, tired, and fractious as we walked around the campground, looking for a site. Only two sites were occupied, along the peaceful river, but we were looking for privacy, so we disregarded that vicinity.

Suddenly, a booming voice rang out. “How’re you gals doin’?”

At the time, Barry was clean-shaven and wore his hair in a style that today is called a mullet: Neatly cut on top, long in the back, but very evenly cut and brushed. So from a distance, we might have appeared as two girls. Our quarrels evaporated into giggles, and we turned to see who it was.

The voice belonged to a friendly-looking bearded guy with a musical instrument. At the time, it looked like a guitar, but I later found out it was a dobro. He introduced himself, saying, “Hi, I’m Harley, and this here is Annabelle.” Annabelle had a guitar and had been singing in a beautiful voice. We were charmed, and after a bit of conversation, decided to set up camp right next to them — the other site was occupied by Harley’s parents, who were retired and had come for a visit.

We had intended to stay for one night and hurry on towards Las Vegas. Instead, we lingered at Villa Nueva for several days, enjoying Harley and Annabelle’s music, sharing meals around the campfire, telling stories, and feeling like family.

At the time, Harley and Annabelle were staying in various New Mexico state parks, making a living selling musical instruments and accessories at the Santa Fe flea market. One thing they told us stuck in the back of my mind: They had met when Annabelle walked into a little music shop Harley ran in Oklahoma, right at the Texas border on I-40. The shop wasn’t doing too well, so they closed it up and tried the flea markets for the summer.

Those few days changed our traveling style. We realized that encounters with people were just as important as scenery and history and wildlife, and were often more memorable. We became more open to meeting people and talking to them, and within two days of leaving Villa Nueva, we’d already met a couple more people with fascinating life stories.

In the years since then, some of our encounters with strangers have led to our biggest adventures, such as Peter and Mannfred, the two German fellows who talked us into canoeing the Yukon River. And we realized that the magical and hilarious week we spent at the home of Daniel, a man we met on a street corner in Key West, didn’t have to be isolated incidents.

In those days, there was no e-mail, and we didn’t usually exchange contact information with people we met. So we lost track of Harley and Annabelle and the elder Russells, but we never forgot about them.

When we started planning our drive across the country from Seattle to North Carolina, I had a wild hair. I sat down at the computer, and I typed in one simple search phrase, in Google: Harley Annabelle Oklahoma.

“Omigod!” I exclaimed, causing Barry to come peer over my shoulder.

Harley and Annabelle didn’t have a website. But there were thousands of references to them and their shop, the Sandhills Curiosity Shop, “Redneck Capital of the World.”

It turns out that in 1999, they were sitting in the little 100-year-old storefront they owned in Erick, Oklahoma, playing their guitars together. Harley has been a professional musician, and Annabelle is a songwriter with a lovely soprano voice. As they were jamming together, a fellow stuck his head inside the shop and heard the music. “I have a tour bus full of folks outside,” he said. “Can I bring them inside for some music?”

The tourists, who were from the UK, trooped inside, and Harley and Annabelle put on an impromptu show for them. Suddenly, the little storefront, which had been an unsuccessful health food store, an unsuccessful music store, and an unsuccessful antique store, turned into a hugely successful tourist attraction, located on the famous Route 66. Writers, photographers, and filmmakers have visited, and despite the fact that they don’t advertise or promote themselves, hundreds of people come to see them each week.

We stopped in yesterday, and due to an e-mail fluke, our visit was a surprise. But they hadn’t forgotten us, and I was quickly enveloped in a bone-crushing hug from great big Harley. Annabelle’s smile was just as kind and welcoming as I remembered.

We looked around the place, taking in the visual overload of Route 66 memorabilia and collectables on the walls, tables, ceiling, and floor. There were hundreds of photos of the groups they’ve entertained, along with cards and gifts and clippings they’ve received from their worldwide friends. When we arrived, they were entertaining a couple from Holland, Ernst and Annette, who were driving the entire length of Route 66. There was a lot of silly banter, and Harley was flirting outrageously with Annette. I laughed so hard, I got a cramp in my jaw.

Then Harley and Annabelle picked up their guitars and played a couple of tunes. Annabelle’s voice was more beautiful than we’d remembered as they played “What a difference a day makes.” And when Harley started in on his guitar solo, it was just like the good old days in Villa Nueva State Park. They finished up with their trademark, “Get your kicks on Route 66.”

After Ernst and Annette left (with Harley and Annabelle blowing kisses), we visited the “Redneck Castle,” their home behind the shop. It’s a cute little house, decorated with even more collectibles and antiques. Annabelle fixed some lunch, and we talked and talked. Before we left, late in the afternoon, we took more photos with them in front of the Sandhills Curiosity Shop, and Harley recommended a campground where we should stop for the night.

Like other friends we visited as we traveled the west coast, we left a gift, one of Michael’s jars of homemade kumquat marmalade. There’s a small connection between these musical friends of ours. In a few years, Disneyland is planning to open “Cars Land,” based on the animated film, “Cars.” Evidently, the Sandhills Curiosity Shop gave the designers of Cars and Cars Land some inspiration, and Michael will surely be one of the first to see it on one of his many trips to Disneyland.

Harley and Annabelle gave us many, many gifts, from the hugs and the music to the kisses they blew as we drove away. The best gift of all is knowing that these two people, who we are proud to say we’ve known for 15 years, are doing well and enjoying life without even leaving small-town Erick, Oklahoma.

While we’ve been out traveling around the world, meeting people and making friends, they’ve  stayed home, and the world and all its new friends are beating a path to their door. I don’t know how long Barry and I will be traveling, but someday, we too will settle down. And then what will we do?

Fifteen years after the first lesson, Harley and Annabelle have taught us another important one. There’s nothing wrong with not traveling. If you don’t travel, and you have a creative, joyous, open heart and something very special to share with the world, then it doesn’t matter where you are. The world will come to you.

Note: There are a few pictures on the site of Bug Ranch and Harley and Annabelle. Go to http://www.mepsnbarry.com/pix/

One more stupid blog about Texas

We left Roswell, New Mexico, headed for Texas, where we would be the aliens. On iTunes, it was time for another round of silly songs, beginning with Lyle Lovett:

That’s right (you’re not from Texas)
That’s right (you’re not from Texas)
That’s right (you’re not from Texas)
But Texas wants you, anyway!
Nobody writes songs about New Mexico, Arizona, or our home state, Washington. But we found plenty about Texas! After Lyle Lovett came the Austin Lounge Lizards, singing “One more stupid song about Texas” and Clarence Gatemouth Brown, singing “They kicked me out of Texas, like a dog without a bone.”
And finally, David Lindley seemed to sing about our specific Texas adventures, in his “Texas Tango”:
When I was driving to El Paso, that’s when my truck ran out of gas-o
I fought a man to get that gas-o, as I was driving to El Paso
OK, this was actually after we left El Paso. I forgot to flip the switch on the gas tank, and we ran dry in a godforsaken parking lot in the Guadalupe Mountains. For 10 minutes, I tried to restart the engine, cranking and cranking and wondering if we would end up sleeping in this parking lot. Meanwhile, a park ranger sat in his truck at the other end of the empty parking lot, staring at us. What was wrong with these strange people in the big blue van with the weird wooden box on top? Should he call for a tow truck? I finally got the air out of the lines, started the engine on the second tank, and we drove away, waving at him sheepishly.
I met a man in Amarillo, he made me wrestle his gorillo,
He fluffed me up just like a pillow, as I was down in Amarillo.
This refers to the hours we spent circling Amarillo, looking for a place to sleep. Many motels advertised sub-$30 rates, but those rooms were never available when we asked. We finally gave up and drove about 20 miles east, to an interchange with an old but clean motel. No gorillos, just a penny-pinching innkeeper.
In the morning, we awoke and discovered that luck actually was with us: We were on old Route 66. And right outside our motel was, not Cadillac Ranch (we’d seen that 15 years ago), but Bug Ranch, five Volkswagen Bugs buried, nose end down (that would be the trunk on a Bug, right?) in the dirt. Even the graffiti was pretty, so we took lots of pictures and enjoyed this little find before we took off down the road.
Our next stop won’t involve recorded music, it will involve the Real Thing. Stay tuned, as we get our Kicks on Route 66!